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Air Vice-Marshal John Smith Air Vice-Marshal John Smith AFC CBE

Born June 8th 1924 in Uckfield, Sussex. Died June 22nd 2013 Age 89

Air Vice-Marshal John Smith, started flying on wartime operations before his 18th birthday, he went on to fly the RAF’s strategic nuclear bombers before filling a number of senior appointments in politically sensitive roles overseas.


Air Vice-Marshal John Smith 

In late 1965 Smith was attending an air warfare course for senior officers when Southern Rhodesia made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI); an oil embargo was imposed, and on November 17 an airlift of oil to landlocked Zambia was launched, involving a large force of RAF transport aircraft and the dispatch of Javelin fighters to Zambia from Cyprus. Smith was withdrawn at short notice and sent to Lusaka in Zambia to create and administer an RAF support force. He played a key role in the success of the operation, which helped to sustain Zambia’s economy.

A few years later Smith was involved in another sensitive operation. After the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in July 1974, and with only 24 hours’ notice, he was posted to Cyprus as Air Officer Administration, Headquarters Near East Air Force (NEAF) to meet the challenges created by the invasion. The failure of peace talks in August resulted in the evacuation of almost 10,000 British dependants and tourists from RAF Akrotiri, and Smith’s firm but fair style of management proved invaluable in what was a turbulent situation.

With the steady reduction of the British military presence in the Near East, Smith and his staff administered the withdrawal from the region, including that of the resident squadrons from Akrotiri. This also resulted in the disbandment of NEAF, and the headquarters was closed on March 31 1976, to be replaced by a smaller Air Headquarters Cyprus, Smith was appointed Deputy Air Commander.

Affectionately known as ‘Big John’, Smith not only worked hard but also played hard, achieving considerable prowess in officers mess rugby. At one guest night, he emerged bloody but unbowed from beneath a pile of bodies and was promptly taken aside by the Commander British Forces, Near East, and banned from further participation in rowdy games on the ground that he was too valuable to risk being damaged.

Although he shunned publicity, Smith was highly popular with, and respected by, the airmen of the island and by the wider community. When he left Cyprus at the end of his three-year tour, his departure was marked with a full guard of honour and the RAF Akrotiri Band, a rare honour.

John Edward Smith was educated at Tunbridge Wells Technical Institute. Anxious to join the war effort, he visited a recruiting office, where he lied about his age and was able to join the RAF as an airman in November 1941. In May the next year he transferred to the Fleet Air Arm, and completed his pilot training in Canada.

On returning to Britain he converted to the Seafire (the naval version of the Spitfire) and joined 886 Squadron in the aircraft carrier Attacker, which supported the amphibious landings at Salerno.

After operations in the Aegean, Attacker returned to home waters to prepare for the D-Day landings. Flying from Lee-on-Solent, Smith flew fighter sweeps over northern France strafing enemy positions and road and rail transports before providing air spotting on D-Day for the barrage of naval gunfire.

After re-joining Attacker, he and his squadron sailed for operations in the Indian Ocean. When V-J Day was declared, he was one of the first pilots to land in Singapore.

In 1950 Smith re-joined the RAF. He was one of the first pilots to join the new Canberra bomber force, initially flying with No 50 Squadron from Lincolnshire before joining No 102 Squadron, based at Gütersloh in Germany, as a flight commander and flying instructor. For his service in Germany he was awarded an AFC.

In 1956 he converted to the Valiant, the first of the RAF’s four-jet strategic nuclear bombers, before joining No 7 Squadron at Honington, the beginning of a long association with the Suffolk base. In 1959 he was appointed a flight commander on No 57 Squadron, which had just re-formed with the Victor, the last of the RAF’s three V-bombers.

In 1963 Smith took command of No 90 Squadron, equipped with the Valiant. Two years later fatigue cracks were found in the wings of the aircraft and the force was grounded.

After service in the Far East and at the RAF’s Strike Command, Smith resumed his association with the V-bomber when, in January 1970, he took command of Marham in Norfolk, home of the RAF’s airborne tanker force. During one station exercise, he broke up a  ‘peace’ demonstration at the main gate by using the water from the station’s fire engines. His superiors rebuked him, but his men were delighted. On leaving his post he was appointed CBE.

After a short spell as Director of Recruiting in 1977, Smith was appointed Air Officer Administration at HQ Strike Command in High Wycombe. He was appointed CB in 1979, and retired two years later.

Having moved to Milton Keynes, he helped to run a small woodworking company that, among other things, produced bespoke wooden propellers for vintage aircraft.

John Smith married, in 1944, Rose-Anne Erikson, whom he met when she was a serving Wren. She survives him with four sons and two daughters. Their eldest son predeceased him.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 02 July 2019, 14:40